An Open Letter to President Obama on U.S. Sudan Policy
Eric Reeves – April 5, 2011
Dear President Obama,
I write to you out of a desperate concern for the present consequences of U.S. Sudan policy during the tenure of special envoy Scott Gration. On February 11 of this year General Gration declared, “The Government of Sudan has taken great steps to lift restrictions on UNAMID [UN/African Union Mission in Darfur].” This assessment is sharply contradicted by facts on the ground, including repeated statements by UNAMID itself that access for key missions has been blocked. General Gration went on to say, “We’ve seen great improvement of access for UNAMID and for the international NGOs.” But again all evidence—including that provided by the organizations themselves—makes clear that both claims were gross misrepresentations, governed more by an expedient desire to present an artificially encouraging picture of the situation in Darfur than by anything actually achieved in negotiations with the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party (NIF/NCP) regime in Khartoum.
As if to underscore the significance of General Gration’s misrepresentations of humanitarian realities in Darfur, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) recently very nearly withdrew from West Darfur because of implied threats by Khartoum’s security services. On March 25, 2011, the organization announced that it had been forced to halt its life-saving activities in West Darfur, where it provides critical food distribution capacity for more than 400,000 civilians. The regime had already suspended CRS operations in late January, even as it was in the process of expelling the important French medical relief organization Mdecins du Monde. Both are critical to humanitarian capacity in Darfur, but in remote and war-ravaged West Darfur, CRS has been the essential actor in providing food in the populous corridors north and south of el-Geneina, the state capital. Because of Khartoum’s actions—which follow a wearingly familiar script—there have been no food distributions since January: both February and March distributions were missed. Apparently the spectacle of 400,000 people slowly starving has unnerved even the Khartoum regime; CRS is now returning its international staff and re-hiring its large Sudanese national staff—the key workers in a challenging and often very dangerous environment.
But as Darfur approaches this year’s hunger gap—April/May through October—the situation for the people in West Darfur looks increasingly grim. There are reports from the ground of people already dying from malnutrition-related causes, especially children under five. Without the return of CRS, many would soon have become desperate and likely abandoned the displaced persons camps in search of other sources of food. Closing down the camps and forcing displaced persons to return “home,” by any means necessary, has long been a priority for the Khartoum regime, confirmed all too clearly in its ominous “New Strategy for Darfur”—promulgated last September, and enthusiastically and repeatedly endorsed by your envoy, General Gration. That endorsement has served to encourage the regime in pursuing its highly threatening policies toward the camps.
Even before being nearly forced out of Darfur, CRS was already the back-up to previously expelled international aid organizations: thirteen of the most distinguished humanitarian groups in the world were expelled by Khartoum in March 2009, representing roughly 50 percent of aid capacity in Darfur. General Gration, whom you appointed that same month, has consistently misrepresented the extent of lost capacity and overstated what has been replaced. He has been joined in this dismaying disingenuousness by your frequent ad hoc envoy to Sudan, Senator John Kerry.
By failing to accept the seriousness of the situation, by failing to pressure Khartoum adequately on the need for unfettered and unimpeded humanitarian access, General Gration has over the past two years allowed the situation to degenerate badly. Last summer senior officials of the International Organization for Migration and the UN High Commission for Refugees were expelled by the regime. And there have been other expulsions, other withdrawals. Khartoum is allowed to suppress key humanitarian data and reports, leaving many organizations without a clear picture of what they are responding to and how to direct their resources most effectively. Militia elements have targeted the premises of the UN World Food Program with gunfire. Given the rampant insecurity that Khartoum allows to prevail throughout Darfur—by means of its brutal militia and paramilitary forces—substantial agricultural production is unlikely this season, making humanitarian assistance even more critical to the lives of the more than 4 million conflict-affected persons in the region.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been newly displaced in recent years, and the most recent displacements—brought on by heavy fighting near Shangil Tobaya and Khor Abeche (close to the boundary between North and South Darfur)—have led to a massive overflow at several camps, including Zamzam camp outside el-Fasher, which now has in excess of 200,000 residents—far beyond the capacity of the current humanitarian presence. A great many have fled because of Khartoum’s continued, widespread, and indiscriminate aerial attacks on civilians targets, all of which are violations of international law and UN Security Council Resolution 1591. None of these attacks have been effectively or consequentially condemned by General Gration, even as they constitute war crimes, and in aggregate come within the ambit of international legal definitions of crimes against humanity. Given your condemnations of the Darfur “genocide,” Mr. President, how can you and your special envoy remain silent in the face of these continuing atrocity crimes?
The potential for catastrophe here is extraordinary—dwarfing in prospective loss of life anything we have seen in Japan or the Middle East. And yet your special envoy has said nothing of significance about this deepening crisis, even as it has been clearly in evidence for many months; nor is there any evidence that he appreciates the need for an extremely rapid improvement in the international humanitarian response.
Even as Darfur faces unprecedented humanitarian shortfalls because of insecurity, lack of access, and obstruction by the Khartoum regime—the worst overall situation since 2004, according to a number of independent observers—the rest of your Sudan policy lies in shambles. The Doha (Qatar) peace process has become irrelevant; Darfuris in all quarters have come to despise General Gration; and the belated appointment of Ambassador Dane Smith cannot change the current dynamic in peace negotiations without a great deal more commitment from higher up in your administration.
This is especially true because Khartoum feels that having allowed for a generally peaceful South Sudan self-determination referendum, it has completed its part of a deal fashioned by General Gration, whereby the United States for its part will normalize relations and remove the Khartoum regime from the State Department list of terrorism-sponsoring nations. And yet Khartoum has made a crisis out of the Abyei region—a crisis that threatens to bring war again to the South, especially in the oil regions. Recent information from the UN force on the ground (UNMIS), as well as imagery from the Satellite Sentinel Project, reveals a military posture by Khartoum’s forces in and around Abyei that can have only one goal: taking control of most of Abyei, including Abyei town, in order to negotiate the final status of the region on the basis of military seizure. Surely your own national security team has made this information available to General Gration.
This seizure may take place gradually, with ground forces and militia elements moving incrementally southward—as appears to be the case presently—or with a much larger and more rapid military offensive, using the substantial armor, mechanized infantry power, artillery, advanced rocket launchers, and air power that are either deployed in the region currently or a short distance away. Such a large offensive would certainly be triggered by any effort on the part of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) to bring significant defensive military pressure to bear anywhere in Abyei. But precisely because of Khartoum’s actions to date—including yet again bombing areas in South Sudan—the SPLA has been brought to the point where it feels it must respond, which is in all likelihood Khartoum’s goal.
How did Khartoum come to believe that it could seize Abyei and negotiate further the region’s final status and boundaries? Here again your special envoy misread the character and instincts of the NIF/NCP regime. Last October he signaled U.S. support for a proposal from Khartoum to divide Abyei yet further between the North and South. Although the State Department subsequently tried to suggest that there was no U.S. proposal on Abyei, several participants in the negotiations—including SPLM minister for regional cooperation Deng Alor—are quite clear that General Gration quickly and eagerly sided with the proposal to divide Abyei yet again. This directly contradicts the terms of the Abyei Protocol (2004), a linchpin of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2005), and also the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (The Hague, July 2009)—accepted in advance by both the Khartoum regime and the southern leadership as “final and binding.”
Khartoum, perceiving that the United States was willing to compromise yet again, has undertaken its extremely dangerous military gambit in Abyei, and yet there has been only bland, even-handed exhortation by your White House. The lack of a principled commitment to the Abyei Protocol and the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration reveals much about the expedient fashion in which General Gration has formulated his policies, or more accurately his reactive decisions.
This absence of a clear policy, other than accommodating the Khartoum regime at every possible moment of dispute, has had a profound effect on the perceptions of U.S. policy by Sudanese from all walks of life and all corners of Sudan. I know from many scores of conversations and communications with Sudanese—especially from the South and Darfur—that General Gration has brought your administration into disgrace and left U.S. policy going forward with the burden of Sudanese skepticism and bitterness at how they have been treated over the past two years.
The bill of indictment for General Gration’s tenure is much longer, Mr. President, but all too consistent with the key issues I’ve highlighted here. He has created a set of circumstances in which vast human suffering and destruction may be precipitated at any moment. Darfur has been effectively “de-coupled” from the largest bilateral issue between the U.S. and Khartoum—certainly from the regime’s point of view—even as atrocity crimes of the worst sort continue to be perpetrated by Khartoum and its militia proxies. The possibility of famine in West Darfur has become a distinct possibility, with no resistance from your special envoy. Parts of Abyei are already in flames, and escalation seems inevitable. And the United States has nothing more to show for its efforts than a southern self-determination referendum that is even now being actively and dangerously undermined by southern renegade militia forces supported by Khartoum.
Nor has there been any progress in democratizing governance in Khartoum and elsewhere in northern Sudan, where flagrant human rights abuses are the order of the day. As SPLM leaders have recently told me in the most direct fashion possible, unless the process of democratization begins in the North—unless the NIF/NCP regime is forced to open political space for opposition parties and forces—it is highly unlikely that peace will be sustained after southern independence on July 9, 2011. And yet such pressure on Khartoum has been entirely missing during the tenure of General Gration.
General Gration has left his position, and I believe his appointment to be ambassador to Kenya is deeply mistaken, especially given the important challenges facing our diplomatic leadership in Nairobi. But the damage he leaves behind, the threats he leaves unaddressed, the dangers he has allowed to fester—all oblige on your part, Mr. President, a sober recognition of General Gration’s destructive legacy, and a near-term commitment to ensure that officials from the highest levels of your administration conduct an urgent review of the consequences of the past two years of our Sudan policy. It is far past time to reset the U.S. course of action vis–vis Khartoum, and this should begin with a suspension of any process of normalization or change to the present regime of sanctions and the status of diplomatic relations. The immediate demand should be that the regime fully abide by agreements it has already signed, both for Abyei and for humanitarian access in Darfur. A strong and unambiguous signal is required, given the immediacy of dangers faced by many Sudanese populations—in the South, in Darfur, in the Nuba Mountains, and in southern Blue Nile. I believe you personally should send that signal, Mr. President.
If your administration simply continues on the course set by General Gration, then you yourself will bear increasing moral responsibility for the many hundreds of thousands of lives acutely endangered by his actions and decisions of the past two years.
Northampton, MA 01063